Thursday 28 December 2017

On whose authority?

Like some of you, I don't find this particular pontificate easy, and I have really tried (see earlier posts). I have been rebuked on Facebook by some (and one in particular) who say that since the Holy Father is chosen by the Holy Spirit, reluctance to embrace all the teaching of the present Pope suggests direct resistance to the Holy Spirit.

There is a lot one can say about that: for a start, if the Holy Father is always the candidate of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit must have been somewhat distracted, let us say, in the tenth century. Cardinal Hume famously said in 1978 that Pope John Paul I was plainly the candidate of the Holy Spirit—that same Holy Spirit who presumably changed his mind 33 days later.

On other people's part, there is also a temptation to identify authority's embrace of their own opinions as 'the work of the Holy Spirit.' We have seen plenty of that at work in the General Synod of the Church of England when one or other item of traditional doctrine has been shelved 'by the Holy Spirit'. All that means is simply that someone thinks the right decision has been made and wants to claim Divine approval.

For some people the unfamiliar path marked out by Pope Francis is a strong test of faith, as, no doubt, were the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI for those of a more liberal persuasion. Does God continue to guide his Church or not? And if so, how?

A parishioner in her very early twenties texted me, distraught, when that letter clarifying what claimed to be the correct interpretation of that footnote in Amoris Lætitia made it to the Acta Apostolicæ Sedis. To her and others it seemed to shake their faith in the Church. I had to reply with a kind of 'calm down, dear'. Frankly, the publication in AAS didn't shake me so much as annoy me. It was irresponsible, not a catastrophe.

What is unthinkable is that Divine Providence would simply have abandoned the Church and left her to her own devices. Perhaps what we need to do is to look at our own presuppositions and ask whether we have got it right. What really is the Holy Spirit trying to teach us in (and perhaps by) this pontificate?

Put simply, I think what is happening is that Ultramontanism is now finally being put into its coffin. It's been a long time a-coming, and its demise was delayed far beyond its normal sell-by date due to the abnormally high quality of most of the various incumbents who have filled the shoes of the fisherman since the mid-nineteenth century. They have led us to expect high-quality teaching that did indeed seem to come straight from the mouth of God.

Truly it seemed as if the Pope's job was to tell us what to believe. He was the earthly shepherd of Christ's flock, striding out while we followed along behind. Or, to change the metaphor, he taught the faith to the bishops, who taught it to the priests, who taught it to the laity who took it to their friends and colleagues. It is as if the Pope was the locus wherein lay the fulness of God's active Word, the fons et origo (on earth, anyway) of Divine truth.

Back in the 1970s, despite a decade of Papal indecision and inaction, Ultramontanism was still alive and well. I stopped believing in it in the mid-eighties. Pope John Paul seems to have believed strongly in it—a cardinal is supposed to have gently suggested abdication once he (JP) was no longer able to walk. The Pope replied firmly 'I don't need two functioning legs to rule the Church!' That made me very uncomfortable, that he saw his role as 'ruling' the Church in that very positive way. I can see why the system might appeal to some from the United States, where strong personal rule is valued in a president (an American friend of mine didn't take to the gentler Benedict: 'John Paul, now, he really kicked ass!') and now we have become accustomed to it.

But is it right? Is that what Christ intended for his Church? I rather suspect that the answer is no, and that we can be grateful to Pope Francis for helping us to see that. I wish I could think of a kinder way of putting this, but it seems as if we have now the reductio ad absurdum of Ultramontanism. You have to believe X because this particular pope teaches X.

It begs the question, though, about what is the locus, the earthly fons et origo of the truth into which our Lord promised that we should be guided by the Holy Spirit?

I'll discuss that in another post.